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This Year's NFL Season Is Going To Look A Little Different

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A new NFL season is underway, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have picked up right where they left off. The defending Super Bowl champs and their ageless quarterback Tom Brady won last night's opening game. Bucs beat a tough Dallas Cowboys team 31-29 with a last-second field goal. Now, this rousing start comes as the NFL hopes it can successfully navigate the coronavirus for a second straight year. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman is here to discuss. Tom, let's start with the game. Tom Brady, 44 years old, threw four touchdown passes and led the winning drive in the last 90 seconds of the game. Is there really anything more to say about this guy that hasn't been said?

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: A, you know, I would kind of like to know what his end of the bargain was, what he gave up for eternal youth.

MARTINEZ: (Laughter).

GOLDMAN: But he's kind of tight-lipped about personal stuff, so we are left to marvel at how he keeps going, how, at 44, he's playing as if he's still in his prime physically and mentally. You know, he's won seven Super Bowls - more than anyone. And he wants more. There's not a hint that he wants to phase out or take it easy. Even after last night's game, he was telling the person interviewing him there are things he and his team need to clean up, to improve on. I mean, that hunger to keep going - that, I think, is unique for someone who's accomplished so much in his profession.

MARTINEZ: Well, he does have 10 fingers, so he could use a few more rings.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter).

MARTINEZ: Now, can we just throw in quickly the performance of Brady's counterpart last night? That's Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott. He came back from a really bad ankle injury. How did he look?

GOLDMAN: He was fantastic. And it was his first game since that brutal injury early last season. He dueled Brady all the way. He had three TD passes, more than 400 passing yards. He looked fully healed, and that's great news for NFL fans 'cause Prescott is definitely one the league's exciting players.

MARTINEZ: All right. Now to - another pandemic season, first a little context about last year. The NFL actually got through the season without canceling a game. How did they do that?

GOLDMAN: You know, with enormous effort - strict protocols - which players did a good job adhering to - comprehensive testing, contact tracing and then flexibility when problems came up. They got through several outbreaks. And in the end, the CDC published a paper on what it learned from the NFL's experience and how those lessons could apply to the general public. And the paper said the most important steps were the commonsense ones - widespread use of masks, reducing in-person meetings, lots of spacing. And it kept that season going. According to nfl.com, 22 games were rescheduled. But, as you said, none were canceled.

MARTINEZ: All right. So that was then. What about now? What's the approach this season?

GOLDMAN: You know, with fans coming back in large numbers without as many strict mask-wearing protocols - and that was obvious in last night's game - there's a lot of attention on vaccines. Some stadiums will require proof of vaccination for fans to get in. And as for the players, the league's not mandating vaccinations, but it's making life harder for those who don't get shots. They have to follow stricter health and safety protocols. And a policy that got everyone's attention - if a game's called off because of an outbreak linked to unvaccinated players and team staff and that game can't be rescheduled, the team with the outbreak will forfeit the game and be credited with a loss. That is pretty tough, but the NFL wants to motivate people here.

MARTINEZ: All right. One more thing, Tom, because this is the biggest NFL season of all time - I mean, literally the biggest.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Exactly. The NFL regular season has expanded from 16 to 17 games - more football, A. It was a contentious issue as players worried about the increased risk of injury. That worry is still there. But the league and the union are going ahead. It'll mean more money for all, which many obviously like.

MARTINEZ: It's just one more game for me to win my fantasy football league. That's NPR's Tom Goldman talking to us about the NFL season. Tom, thanks a lot.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.